Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer 32d

Defense bails out conservative Oklahoma State as Cowboys stay alive in playoff race



AUSTIN, Texas -- With an offense that scored just a single touchdown, a beat-up offensive line and a Heisman Trophy candidate who was largely silenced, No. 10 Oklahoma State still managed to escape with a win on Saturday.

An ugly, mistake-filled trip to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium was light on pleasing aesthetics but ended positively for the Cowboys, keeping their Big 12 championship game and College Football Playoff hopes alive with a 13-10 overtime win against Texas.

It wasn't scripted the way most Cowboys wins are. Quarterback Mason Rudolph was held to under 300 yards passing for the first time since the Bedlam game last year. The Cowboys, who had scored at least 20 points in 35 straight games, couldn't reach that mark. And they went 12 consecutive drives without a touchdown after J.D. King's rushing score in the first quarter.

Thanks to the Cowboys' defense, which held Texas to a mere 42 rushing yards on 33 carries and capped the day with safety Ramon Richards' interception of Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger to seal the victory, coach Mike Gundy's crew left its difficult road trip with its postseason hopes still intact.

Though the Cowboys are technically still in the playoff race, they haven't looked like such a squad against a team of consequence in more than a month. Since their 59-21 beatdown of Pitt on Sept. 16, Oklahoma State took a double-digit home loss to TCU, squeaked by Texas Tech (the Red Raiders had a chance to take a late lead but couldn't) and pounded winless Baylor before Saturday's less-than-impressive showing.

Despite moving the ball decisively better than the Longhorns in the first half (15 first downs to seven), the Cowboys entered halftime in a 7-7 deadlock. They can thank a host of mistakes for that, chief among them RB Justice Hill's fumble inside the 10, a missed tackle that allowed Texas receiver John Burt to tiptoe along the sideline for a 90-yard reception on the ensuing drive, and DE Jordan Brailford's failure to recover an Ehlinger fumble with nobody around him (Ehlinger eventually recovered).

In the second half, the Cowboys' vaunted offense -- which entered Saturday's game ranked first nationally in yards per game and second in scoring -- was ineffective. Texas held Oklahoma State without a touchdown for the entire second half and overtime. Hill sporadically found room to run, but not consistently. Rudolph found himself under pressure at times, simply off target on other occasions. The Longhorns kept stud receivers James Washington and Marcell Ateman largely quiet, save for one big 66-yard catch by Ateman when defensive back Brandon Jones fell down in coverage. Oklahoma State's offensive line, beat up from injuries, had its hands full against Texas' defensive front.

How bad did things get on Saturday for the once video-game-like Cowboys offense? With less than two minutes left in regulation and the score tied 10-10, the Cowboys, led by a Heisman-caliber quarterback, called four run plays and threw only once. The Cowboys ended up punting on the drive.

But the defense picked them up. The Cowboys hassled Ehlinger plenty, sacking him three times and pressuring him much more. The Longhorns managed only 283 yards for the day, and their most valuable player was their punter, Michael Dickson, who averaged 50.9 yards per punt on 11 attempts and downed five inside the Oklahoma State 20-yard line. The Longhorns had chances down the stretch to win it, but the Cowboys came up with key stops time and again.

There were some mistakes, but Gundy & Co. emerged from their conference road trip with a win. And for now, that's all that matters for the Cowboys.

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